Students with Disabilities have Room on the Bench in NY


NEW YORK (JTA) — Standing in the back of an open elementary school classroom at the Luria Academy, a Jewish Montessori school in Brooklyn, Dana Keil asks in a whisper if a visitor can tell which children in the room have special needs.

I guarantee you won’t be able to tell,” she said.

And she’s right.

Yet Keil, 25, estimated that nearly half the children in the room have some type of disability that requires what’s called an “individualized education program,” or IEP.

As the director of special education and support services at the Prospect Heights academy, Keil is a strong advocate of including all types of children, including those with disabilities, into the same classroom.

Last September, she earned a $100,000 fellowship from the Joshua Venture Group, a Jewish nonprofit, to start Room on the Bench. Through the Luria-based initiative, Keil is beginning to council other Jewish community schools in the New York City area on how to implement inclusion models.

“Even though the Jewish community has been progressive for centuries, this is one area where we are honestly very far behind,” Keil said.

Inclusion is standard practice in public schools thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1990. The federal statute mandates that a child with a disability cannot be placed in a separate classroom unless the severity of the disability precludes learning in a normal classroom. However, the law does not apply to private schools, and some disability advocates say that the Jewish community has not done enough to make children with disabilities, and their families, feel welcome in its day schools.

Keil said that many Jewish day schools do not accept applicants who have any kind of IEP, even if their disabilities are purely physical and not intellectual. Although an IEP can be prescribed for an incredibly wide range of disabilities, from spina bifida to an autism spectrum disorder, Keil said that most Jewish day school administrators “see an IEP as an IEP instead of looking at the individual child.”

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